Life in Hollywood, below-the-line

Life in Hollywood, below-the-line
Work gloves at the end of the 2006/2007 television season (photo by Richard Blair)

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Now We're Cookin'

                                      An impromptu on-location pizza oven...

Incandescent lamps are notoriously inefficient, converting less (in some cases, considerably less) than 10% of their electrical input to visible light, with the rest converted to heat.  Movie lamps are extremely bright, but the salient feature anyone who works with these lamps soon learns is how incredibly hot they get after only a few minutes -- and most veteran juicers have the faded scars as a testament to that learning experience.  In essence, a tungsten lamp is just an expensive toaster, utilizing a metal filament (albeit one housed within a vacuum or gas-filled container) that glows to emit light and heat when electricity flows through it.

When you consider the many long, tedious hours we've all spent manning lamps on set over the years -- especially during night shoots -- it's no surprise that juicers all over the world have come up with  creative uses for all that excess heat.  The photo above (from Shitty Rigs -- and if you haven't checked them out yet, you should) is a prime example, accompanied by the following caption:

"We were hungry after wrap, so we heated up the leftover pizzas with a mole-fay."* 

Hey, whatever works.  We've all choked down our share of stone-cold pizza at the end of a long night on set, and if re-heated pizza isn't quite like fresh-from-the-oven, it beats the hell out of a stiff slab of congealed grease and leathery cheese.

While on a location feature in North Carolina years ago, I used a 1000 watt nook light** (with barn doors suitably deployed) as a top-down broiler to make tuna melts in our cheap hotel room late one night after work, and even farther down the dusty tunnel of time, used to cook nachos on the grid of a 225 amp DC carbon arc lamp.  The grid was essentially a big resistor used to lower the incoming voltage from 120 volts down to 73, which was more to the arc's liking -- and in the process, that grid got hot enough to melt cheese over Fritos for a snack.

An arc grid could be a beast in the daytime heat of the LA summer, but was a godsend during chilly night shoots.  Each arc lamp required an operator to monitor and periodically adjust the flame inside and "trim the arc" -- install fresh positive and negative carbons as needed -- and that warm grid eased the misery of working all night.

There were other benefits as well, since each and every female extra working in the scene (some of whom were -- due to the nature of the scenes being filmed -- very scantily-clad) would make a beeline for the nearest arc as soon as the director yelled "cut."  Grateful for the heat, these lovely young women would huddle close around the warm grid  -- and the arc operator -- until the next take was up.  It was a win/win for everybody, and helped take some of the sting out of those endless night shoots.

But I suppose that's all a very different sort of cooking...

* Here's a selection of heads using mole fays.

** Like this, only with barn doors...

Sunday, August 18, 2013

The Stupidest Thing I Ever Did

                                  Lessons Learned

Like everyone who manages to stumble through five decades of life, I’ve done my share of stupid things – from trying to take a 30 mph corner at 70 on my boss’s brand new motorcycle (a learning experience that put me in the hospital for a week, then sent me back for my entire final year at college on crutches and a full leg cast), to providing an inadequate answer to the seemingly innocuous question posed over breakfast by the young lady I'd assumed was destined to become the Mrs. Hollywood Juicer.

Mistakes have consequences.  My left leg has been a half-inch shorter and nothing but trouble ever since since that fateful day on Dead Man's Curve, while the lovely young woman found herself a guy smart enough to give her The Right Answer -- and in time, three kids to fill their home somewhere in the green paradise of Oregon. 

Such is life.  Nobody gets out of this world alive, much less unscathed, but we learn a few lessons along the way.

This post, however, concerns some of the Stupid Things I’ve done while trying to build a career here in Hollywood.  The immense wave of ignorance I rode into town was a double-edged sword -- knowing nothing about the way things are supposed to be done, I arrived with a brash, ready-for-anything attitude, primed to do whatever it took to gain a toehold in the business.  My unconscious approach worked, more or less, but looking back, it seems a minor miracle that I survived this baptism of fire or that so many of the people I met early on didn’t just tell me to fuck off.  That they didn’t is a testament to their patience in allowing me to gain the skills and experience necessary to earn a living -- because I made a lot of stupid mistakes along the way.  Fortunately, those further up the food chain were usually willing to give me another chance.

I owe those people, but it’s a debt that can’t be paid.

Like the time in the early 80's when I was rigging a Roger Corman space epic and had to belly-crawl into a tight, dark corner to power a brand new AC dimmer pack – and in the dim light, mistook the yellow hot leg for the white neutral.  Being unaware of the difference between single phase and three phase power at the time -- and having left a flashlight and volt meter behind -- my assumption melted down that brand new dimmer pack within the hour, after which the remains were hauled back to the rental house for major repairs.


For some reason the gaffer didn’t fire me – and in hooking up hundreds of dimmers since then, I’ve made damned sure to check the incoming power lines each and every time. Lesson learned.

Then, bone-tired and brain-dead while wrapping a stage after my first 20 hour music video, I waited directly under a studio 5K hanging from a half-inch hemp line twenty feet overhead.  Staring upward like a brain-dead cow, my intent was to grab the lamp as it was lowered, then guide it gently to the floor.  The juicer up high had a lot more experience, though, and warned me to stand clear while he untied the rope. I followed orders -- which was a very good thing, because the moment he loosened the knot, that fifty pound steel and glass lamp head dropped like an anvil, destroying the light and cratering the stage floor.  As it turned out, the rope had been charred and weakened by the fierce heat rising from the burning lamp over the course of a long day rigging and an even longer day filming.  It was a miracle it hadn’t let go when the stage was crowded with people – and I was lucky not to be standing there chewing my metaphorical cud as the lamp dropped on my head.

Another lesson learned.

There are many more examples, and looking back, it’s difficult to choose the absolute Stupidest Thing I ever did – but reading this over at The Hills are Burning jarred my sclerotic memory.  Whether or not this particular Stupid Thing really is the most egregious of my mental lapses in Hollywood is impossible to quantify, but having happened within the last decade, it stands out from the rest.

As one of the regular day-players over the final two seasons on Will and Grace, I worked very hard to impress the powers that be, and thus be in line for a spot on the core crew should opportunity arise.  That was one fast crew – the Gaffer, Best Boy and juicers moved very quickly to get the work done.  Being older than all of them, I felt a very real pressure to match their pace, and thus not be perceived as a slow, over-the-hill plow horse.  Some of this came from the very top, because the director was the legendary Jim Burrows, a crusty, sharp-tongued veteran who hates to waste time and does not suffer fools with any grace whatsoever.  He expects his crews to be fast and competent, and they are.  Still, it’s axiomatic that speed kills (any way you choose to interpret that statement), and in my case, the pressure to get things done right now led to a split-second decision that nearly proved my undoing.

While setting up for a quick scene on a block-and-shoot day, the grips hung a swing-set backing from 1/4 inch hemp ropes tied at either end of a twenty foot section of speedrail.  By the time we'd roughed in the lighting for the scene, the cameras were in place and cast ready to go.  Burrows looked on with his usual impatience, anxious to shoot.  We had one lamp left to power, but the closest power feed dangled nearly nineteen feet above the floor.  There was no man-lift handy, so I grabbed a ten step ladder and headed up.  Half-way to the top, I spotted a twelve step only twenty feet away, and thought about aborting my climb to use the bigger ladder -- but the gaffer was watching, so I decided to go for it.  Standing on the very top step, with nothing but thin air to steady myself, I was just able to brush the feeder cable with my fingertips.  At that moment, the smart thing – the only thing, really -- was to climb back down, fetch the twelve step ladder, then make the hookup. 

But that would eat up precious time, and in the process, reveal that I'd made a bone-headed move by grabbing a ladder that was too short in the first place.  So I did the Stupid Thing instead, going up on my tiptoes to reach and connect those two cables… at which point the ladder suddenly rocked forward, shifting under me. 

We’ve all heard about people who fall from a great height having their entire past life flash before their eyes.  Maybe that’s true and maybe not, but in my case – balanced on the knife edge of disaster – I experienced a disturbingly clear vision of my immediate and unfortunate future.  Trying to stick the landing from ten feet up, wearing a full tool belt, could easily break one or both feet, ankles, or even snap that gimpy left leg again.  In a split-second that seemed to stretch out like salt water taffy, my eyes fixed on the piece of speedrail holding the backing, which just might be close enough to reach if I timed my jump perfectly.  But even if I managed to grasp the aluminum pipe, would the ropes hold -- or would I drag the whole backing to the floor with me, doing God knows how much damage in the process?  Even if that maneuver spared me from serious injury, the fact that I’d committed such a colossally stupid blunder right in front of Burrows and his shark-eyed producers would put an end to my tenure at Will and Grace.  Worse, the story would rapidly spread throughout the studio and beyond, marking me as a clumsy doofus too dumb to use the right ladder, an act that could severely impact my potential of landing a show or ever getting off the insecure merry-go-round of day-playing.

And that’s if everything went right -- not being a circus athlete, odds were I wouldn’t quite reach the speedrail, and in flailing desperation, would grab the edge of the backing to break my fall.  The backing would rip and tear, and I’d still end up hurt on the floor.  However this thing unfolded in the next few milliseconds, my impending fall would be an unmitigated personal disaster. 

Somehow – and for the life of me, I’ll never understand how the hell it happened – I managed to rock back ever so slightly and regain my very precarious balance.  Gingerly,  my heart pounding and adrenaline surging, I made that first crucial step back down the ladder, and moments later was standing on the floor, thoroughly freaked out.  One very stupid decision in the heat of the moment had nearly altered the trajectory of my late-stage career in a massive way.  Rather than being on my way to the hospital (and off Will and Grace forever), I was shaken but okay, with the saving grace that nobody else there on set was aware what had just happened.  I managed to remain as a regular day-player until the show ended its run the following season.

There was only myself to blame for this near-disaster.  It was my hasty decision to use a too-short ladder and hope for the best, ignoring my own common sense in the manic rush to get the job done.  It was stupid.  Nobody would have fired me for taking thirty extras seconds to get the right ladder and do the job safely -- but I allowed myself to succumb to the unspoken pressure, and in my haste, nearly paid a very heavy price.

Still, that day taught me a valuable lesson -- and it was the last time I did something quite that dumb on a ladder.  I push the envelope from time to time -- given the realities of working on crowded sets, there's often no choice -- but never again to such a degree.   I always leave a certain safety margin, or else find another way to get the job done.  

I was damned lucky that day, and I know it.

Lesson learned.

Sunday, August 11, 2013


                                           (Photo by Billy Marshall)
                              Down it comes, lamps, Cronie Cones, cable and all...

Coming to the end of a season generates a complex stew of emotions, all of which bubbled back to the surface as my little back-from-the-dead cable show completed the scheduled run of sixteen episodes.  I missed two of those shows due to illness and some family issues, but was right there on the front lines for the remaining fourteen... where I resumed the weekly exercise in futility of the show-night Five Dollar Day drawing -- fourteen opportunities which I lost each and every time, while contributing a grand total of seventy dollars to the happy winners.

But what the hell – it’s all in the spirit of fun and crew bonding.  Well worth the money, that.

The wrap party was scheduled for the Friday evening following our final Thursday night show.  Considering that I had to get up at 5:00 a.m. Friday morning for a full day of wrapping the lamps on stage, I wasn’t sure I’d go.  It’s one thing to hit a wrap party after a week off to recover, but that wasn't possible, and I was thoroughly fried.  The notion of slogging home from the Valley through LA traffic after a long hard day, then showering/changing clothes and heading right back into the Friday evening rush-hour in the midst of the summer’s first serious heat wave held little appeal.

But as I lay semi-comatose on the couch in front of a whirling box fan, it occurred to me that there are only so many seasons left in this Hollywood career of mine, after which the free drinks, food, and bittersweet camaraderie of wrap parties will be gone forever.  There are no easy jobs anymore -- each successive show seems harder than the last -- but it's not the shows that are changing, it's me.  I'm wearing down, losing a little bit more of what I used to be every day.  With the countdown clock ticking ever louder, maybe I should hit that wrap party while I still could.

So I did. 

The Universal City Walk is a very strange place, an utterly artificial environment blending some of the worst aspects of a shopping mall, food court, bars-a-plenty/booze-a-apalooza, and SoCal theme park.  Like Las Vegas, there’s nothing remotely real about the place, but given the increasingly grim nature of “real life,” I can understand why people might seek relief from reality and try to have a little mindless fun in such safe, albeit sterile surroundings.  

Which they were doing – the place was crowded on this hot Friday night.

But once out of the parking lot, the crowd wasn't a factor,  since the production company had bought out one of the City Walk venues for the night.  There was music, food, and booze, followed by the traditional multi-screen showing of the season’s gag reel… and there was bowling, for those inclined to hurl a heavy black ball towards a triangular cluster of innocent wooden pins huddled at the far end of the polished wooden runway.

In bowling, you set 'em up, knock 'em down, then repeat, which makes it an apt metaphor for the endless cycles of creative destruction at the beating heart of the film and television industry.

Between the music thumping out from an industrial-strength sound system and the cacophonous thunder of bowling balls mowing down ten-pins, making conversation without shouting was difficult, but that too seems to be a wrap party tradition.  Still, it was fun to see all these people outside their usual on-set roles, and to meet their spouses/significant others, who usually remain far in the shadows of every show.  A good wrap party helps put a more human face on the group endeavor.

Once upon a time, wrap parties tended to rip me up.  After working with – and suffering alongside -- a group of people for the weeks and months necessary to put a feature film or television show in the can, tight on-set bonds were forged.  We became a unit, the smoothly-meshing gears of a machine put together for the singular purpose of making a show... but with that show suddenly over, we all had to go our separate ways back to real life.  Although there was an undeniable relief that the relentless daily/weekly/monthly grind was finally over, the sense of something special being lost (again...) was hard for me to take.  So I’d belly up to the bar to drown those emotions in alcohol before saying a few dozen sloppy goodbyes and staggering home at the end of the night.

Then came the dawn, the hangover, and the inevitable depression that accompanied my sudden freedom from the tyranny of the call sheet.  Where the daily routine on-set had been sharply focused on the job at hand, my attention now had to turn towards the more nebulous task of landing the next job.  

That's Hollywood, a boom-and-bust world in every sense of the phrase.

Echoes of those days remain, but if wrapping a show still elicits similar emotions, they form a more tepid stew at this point in my career.  The process is routine now, a matter of fact.* We build it up, tear it down, then move on to the next one.  There’s always another show around the corner, bringing new and interesting people to meet. 

It’s all part of the process.

So I had a few appetizers along with my two glasses of wine, hugged the pretty girls and shook hands with the guys, then laughed at the gag reel with everyone else -- and then I said goodnight.  A long week of wrapping the set and stage lay ahead, and with the network assurances that our little show would indeed return for another season down the road a ways, this wrap party felt more like “see you later” than “goodbye.” 

Still, a lot can happen between now and then, so I’ll believe the show really is coming back -- and that I'll be a part of the crew -- the moment I’m sitting in the Gold Room filling out my start paperwork, and not one minute before. 

We'll see. Meanwhile, I choose to remain cautiously optimistic, with one hand behind my back, fingers carefully crossed.  The only thing I know for sure is that if and when it does come back, next season will seem harder for me than the one we just finished -- even if it really isn't.

That clock is ticking.

* Until I do the final show that calls a wrap on my career – at which point I may well morph into a drunken blubbering fool one last time… 

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

On the Fence?

Anybody out there still on the fence about supporting Joe Cottonwood's Kickstarter campaign (see yesterday's post) should read this one -- it's the post that set the hook for me.  Maybe that's because I work with electricity every day on set, but you don't have to be a juicer to appreciate that post.  I've read it several times since it first went up, and it still sends shivers down my spine.

Check it out -- then take a look at Joe's Kickstarter campaign.  Help him out if you can, okay?


We've been down this road before, but I've noticed an uptick in hits coming from a site called DVX User in the last few weeks, and although all are welcome to wander through the stacks here at BS&T, you DVX'ers may have been led astray by the referring post -- which reads: 

"This blog is a wonderful read and she has links to a bazillion photos she’s taken, many inside studios and sound stages."

Although I appreciate the kind words, it's clear that the person who posted this has mistaken my blog for that of the lovely and talented Peggy Archer, the O.G. Queen of Industry Bloggers who has been writing Totally Unauthorized for more than ten years now.  

I put up maybe one photo per post, and only a few of those were taken on set.  Peggy does indeed post a bazillion such pictures.  

Besides, I'm a "he," not a "she," and Peggy Archer is most definitely a "she."

No harm, no foul. I hope all you DVX readers enjoy what you find here -- but if you're looking for great posts and lots of on-set photos, you might want to click on over to Peggy's blog.

Monday, August 5, 2013

99 Jobs

                          The Kickstarter Campaign 

Some of you regulars might have noticed a link under the "Writing, the Media, and Life" blogroll to 365 Jobs, where independent contractor/carpenter/plumber/electrician (and very fine writer) Joe Cottonwood has been telling his stories for the last couple of years. Joe has been writing for decades, with several books under his belt (at least one of which I've read, called "Clear Heart," a very good read), and just completed a new book based on his blog.

365 Jobs was recommended to me by a friend of Joe's who also reads this blog, and I remain grateful for that tip.  It's a great blog.  Joe writes with precision and feeling, in a spare, no-nonsense style that I really like.

As you can see, the new book is called "99 Jobs: Blood, Sweat & Houses" -- and before anyone raises an eyebrow at the title, Joe made sure to clear it with me before the book was locked.  He didn't have to, but he did, giving me a chance to cast a veto.  I'll admit it took a little while to wrap my brain around the notion. That title hit a bit close to the bone, since I want to retain the option of using the title of this blog for my own blog-based book... but that book is a long way off.  I've made some progress, but not nearly as much as I'd hoped by now, and it's clear that it won't be anywhere near ready for publication (whether in E-book or print form) anytime soon.  Offhand, I'd say late next year at the very earliest -- and even that is probably wildly optimistic -- so there's not much chance any potential readers would confuse Joe's book with mine.

And if my book turns out to be half as well-written as Joe's, I'll be one very happy guy.  At any rate, he's got my blessing and best wishes for the success of his book.

As it happens, Joe just began a Kickstarter campaign hoping to raise enough to help fund the publication of "99 Jobs."  Publishing books outside the mainstream isn't cheap, and he's trying to do it right.  Yes, he could go the publishing-on-demand route, but those books end up costing the customer $25 or more by the time shipping and handling are added up -- and that for a five-by-nine inch paperback that shouldn't sell for more than $12 to $15 in the real world -- so he's going to publish it himself, controlling every aspect of the process.  Given that I want a print copy of my own -- and maybe some of those custom-made wooden bookmarks (made of lumber from Ken Kesey's cabin in La Honda, California), I'll be kicking in my share.  If you appreciate good, thoughtful writing from someone who knows what it's like to come home from work tired and bearing the scars of an honest day's work, I urge you to support him.  Hell, this isn't a multi-millionaire like Zach Braff asking for five million bucks, it's a hard working carpenter hoping to raise just four thousand dollars -- a guy who happens to be a very gifted writer.

If you'd like to be part of making this book possible, check out Joe's Kickstarter page, and do it soon -- he's only got one month to raise the money.  If the campaign fails, we might only see this book in e-book form -- and I don't know about you, but I like to hold a real book in my hands when I read it.

Besides, I really want one of those wooden bookmarks...

Check it out, and if you can, lend a hand.  Any amount will help.

And thanks...

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Nothing New

         There are lousy murals all over Hollywood, and this is one...

Due to the collusion of a number of factors, there's nothing new here today -- with any luck (and assuming one of the lawyers realizes just how lousy a candidate I really am to serve on any jury), maybe next week.

Meanwhile, you newbies out there should do yourself a huge favor and read this over at Dollygrippery.  Yes, "D" is a dolly grip -- not a juicer, camera assistant, professional screenwriter, producer, or director -- but the advice he offers in that post applies to everyone coming into this business.   Change the terminology, and he could be talking about any of the crafts.  It's a great post from a professional who learned his lessons the hard way -- which is the only way to really learn anything.

But that doesn't mean you can't get a jump on that learning process, so click that link and absorb some wisdom that will serve you well.